Ekunyi's Embers

PBP 2013 – D is for Difference or Division

This past Friday night I had the pleasure of attending a showing of the film “Searching for the Fourth Nail.” American-Romani director George Eli used the film to document a journey of identity and faith, seeking out the reasons as to why the Rom lived under the “Gypsy” stereotype. He began with the story his mother shared with him as a small boy, a story that supposedly all the Rom knew.

As the story goes, when Jesus was to be nailed to the cross, there were originally four nails, not three. Two for his hands, one for his feet, and the last for his heart. A Romani thief took the fourth nail, preventing an immediate death and enacting the events that would lead to Jesus’ resurrection. Because of this, Eli’s mother claimed, God gave the Rom the right to steal from the non-Rom gadje. 

Eli’s journey involved discussions with family members and complete strangers. He visited conferences, videoed a Baptist service which many Rom had adopted as their own faith, and dug through countless historical works to trace Romani history back to India. In a particularly emotional moment, he visited the Holocaust museum in Washington, DC with his son, where he found a single book in the museum store relating to Rom in the Holocaust. His conclusion was that a history of oppression led the Rom to, in a way, view themselves as the outside world viewed them. In turn, they invented stories that kept the stereotypes alive, but converted them into a source of pride.

After the film, Eli took questions from the audience, and one elderly white woman raised her hand asking: “If you want to be assimilated into our culture, why do you keep making it a case of us versus them? Why do you keep using that term… gadje?”

I don’t think the woman meant to come off as racist and ignorant as she sounded to those of us sitting around her who collectively facepalmed. I think her question was an expression of genuine hope for a future in which, to use a Lennon-ism, “the world will live as one.”

Nevertheless, had Eli been angered by this, I doubt many of us would have blamed him. But to his immense credit, he remained calm, even compassionate.

I’m paraphrasing of course, but he said something along these lines:

I don’t want to be assimilated. I am Rom, my sons are Rom. I am Rom first, a New Yorker second, and an American third. This doesn’t mean I don’t love my country. I was born here, I am a citizen, and after 9/11 my community wanted to reach out and help as much as any others. I just want my country to know why I am Rom. I want them to understand the oppression that shaped me and my community, that forced us to steal. I want them to know where we came from originally, that we do fortune-telling because we believe in it, because it’s a part of our culture. I want my sons to be proud of being Rom.

Maybe we should stop using gadje. But that’s a part of human nature. No matter who you are, there’s going to be an “other.” And you’re going to have a term for that other. I think it’s more important to make sure you respect that other and that he respects you, take pride in your differences but not let them divide you. 

Now let me put it out there from the start that I am an extremely privileged, able-bodied white woman who has known nothing in the way of the genuine discrimination that George Eli and his community have faced. But of course I’ve seen division in my life, in almost all of the communities I’ve participated in. We all have.

We’re not always going to get along and we’re not always going to understand each other. We have different backgrounds, different beliefs, different rituals, different leaders, different ways of writing, different ways of portraying ourselves, different methods of supporting our arguments. This much difference is going to engender debate.

But I keep returning to George Eli’s words.

There’s going to be an “other.” Maybe it’s you, maybe it’s me. She or he will exist. We can choose to stick a name on her (or better yet, let the “other” choose her own name) but difference will remain. We can’t possibly merge into one vast monotony of agreement.

And who would want to? I’m proud of who I am, the faith I hold, the research I do. I’m proud to claim my community of friends all walking unique paths of Druidry and Animism and Kemeticism and Atheism and Christianity and Buddhism and more. I respect myself, I respect my acquaintances, and I can only be who I am and hope that me will eventually earn respect in turn. I don’t want our differences to prove divisive.

But, of course, it’s not that simple. Emotions muddy the waters. We build a sense of loyalty to our community, we find individuals who we love so deeply as to want to defend from any perceived attack. The goal of cultural (or perhaps, for the purposes of this blog series, spiritual) relativism, is an ideal, not a reality.

Perhaps that’s what Eli was doing. His argument for difference without division was no less an ideal than the elderly woman’s vision of a unified, culture-blind America. But, at least in this author’s humble opinion, it seems an ideal to which we can more readily aspire, an ideal that, while never fully achievable, is more likely to promote positive change, more likely to make us respect difference even as we debate it.

Just food for thought.

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